Not what we want in Left Unity

Left Unity: A matter of political health

Unity requires freedom to criticise, argues Paul Demarty

The dismal goings-on in Manchester Left Unity branch give us an opportunity to hammer home some basic principles of organisation.

For those with short attention spans, we will state things clearly, up front: without the freedom of political criticism and open polemic, unity in the ranks of a political organisation is rendered fragile. Further, attempts to suppress robust criticism as ‘bullying’ inevitably end up suppressing criticism in general (it is not nice to be told you are talking rubbish, after all). They not infrequently end up ‘reversing the poles of oppression’, creating a suffocating bureaucratic tyranny far more damaging than any individual heckler or internet troll.

The empirical evidence for this is vast. For a pertinent example, however, we should take a look at the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP has, since it was formed out of the International Socialists in the late 1970s, operated a highly bureaucratic internal regime. Nothing else would do, we were told repeatedly down the years: the job of revolutionaries in the day-to-day class struggle was to raise, in absolute unity, the particular slogan that would spur the class onwards, and endless debate would leave the organisation mired in ‘passive propagandism’. At the point of revolutionary crisis, revolutionaries would have to be mobilised under military levels of discipline in order to lead a forcible confrontation with the armed detachments of the state.

Thus, more or less absolute faith was demanded in the leadership of the SWP’s ‘high command’ - its central committee, led by Tony Cliff, then John Rees, then Alex Callinicos with a shifting cast of allies. Discussion was limited to a three-month period before conference, with three bulletins stuffed full of banal CC perspectives. In between times, iron discipline was enforced by a hardened apparatus of centrally appointed full-timers.

There was a limited basis, up until the end of 2012, for SWP comrades to believe that this worked; although the signs of decay have been plain for all to see since the slow-motion split with Rees and his allies, which produced Counterfire in England and Wales and the International Socialist Group in Scotland (a laughable name for such a sorry band of nationalists).

Such a basis, naturally, no longer exists. Since that time, the SWP has been embroiled in crisis, shedding hundreds of comrades, primarily in two discrete waves which produced the International Socialist Network and now Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century. The details are well rehearsed, and need not be repeated here.

Perhaps the most damaging result for Callinicos and co is not the loss of so many activists, but the death of an illusion. So many years building ‘the party’ … and at the first real test of comrades’ stomachs, their commitment to the organisation evaporates. Far from hardening people up, the SWP’s internal culture leads to two unfortunate results - a trivial engagement from the membership, for whom the SWP is simply a means to get out there and ‘do something’; and the development of a frankly disturbing mindset among those who do drink the Kool-Aid (the so-called In Defence of Our Martin faction), who call for purges of mild oppositionists with a fervour that would embarrass the most obsequious apparatchik in 1930s Russia.

So far, this is probably not enormously controversial - most of us would surely accept that the internal culture of the SWP was and remains a signal example of how not to build a socialist organisation, while differing on the details. The details matter, however. The SWP’s failure, far more than it is to do with a culture of institutionalised sexism, is a result of its suppression of intellectual and practical initiative at the base.

As the years draw on in such an organisation, the very ability of people in branches to take effective initiatives atrophies. The importance of the apparatus grows - they are the only comrades who are able to coax the membership into action and, the more the members are corralled, the less any effective challenge to either the apparatus or the leadership it represents is possible. The negative consequences manifest primarily as grumbling, and wastage of individual comrades into nowhere. With the right kind of spark, there can be a conflagration of the sort we saw last year (and, while it cannot be dissociated with sexual inequality in society at large, incidents such as the Delta debacle are made both more likely and more damaging by the instrumentalisation of cadre by the leadership).


This does not, to be sure, seem to be the state of affairs in Left Unity. It could perhaps stand to be a little more top-down and centralised than it is - sometimes there appears to be little more than a standing order and an official email address linking a branch to the national organisation, which has been powerless to prevent low-level, rather petulant splits along political lines in the Leeds and Glasgow branches. (The Manchester affair might have ended up this way, had not merely one individual been set up as a scapegoat for the right wing of the branch.)

There is, however, one striking homology - which is the obvious resistance of comrades in Manchester to public criticism of their conduct on principle (one of their two motions is entirely dedicated to this matter, and the motion for the suspension of comrade McCauley refers explicitly to his article in this paper, alongside various vague and baseless charges). It is very reminiscent of SWP die-hards’ response to opposition leaks and public criticism during last year’s crisis.

Even the ancillary charges (bullying, oppressive conduct and other such garbled nonsense) have an SWPish feel to them. One of the more obvious problems with the ‘SWP doesn’t take sexism seriously’ interpretation of its crisis is that the SWP has been fitting troublesome people up on vague charges of ‘sexism’ for decades. In that context, it is perfectly obvious that charges of this nature - when they are scurrilous - are a tool of the bureaucracy (the case of the Unison Four, suspended for a notionally “racist” leaflet, is another prime example).

The resistance to sharp public criticism is, in this case, not done in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party’, but of being ‘inclusive’. The argument is superficially seductive, given the abstruseness of many long-running debates on the left and their immediate inaccessibility to outsiders. Nobody wants to come to a meeting and see leftists tearing strips out of each other, surely. And nobody wants to get the hairdryer treatment in the Weekly Worker!

Actually, however, policing conduct in this way is more profoundly exclusionary. This has something to do with the ‘political economy’ of leftwing organisations (and, indeed, of institutions in society at large). Private property exists not only in the means of production or other material assets, but in the control of information. The phenomenon of bureaucracy consists in the first instance of a caste of people who acquire for themselves a monopoly on the exchange of information, because it is only the bureaucrats who can get things done.

This is very visible in the mass contingents of the workers’ movement - the bureaucratisation of the trade unions has fed into, and itself been aggravated by, the increasingly legalistic character of much union activity (employment tribunals and so on). Effective trade unionism, in this sphere of activity, means acquiring a mass of specific legal-technical savoir faire that enables the union to get results for individual workers as individuals.

The same is true, however, of the ‘safe spaces’ brigade and outliers, such as those in Manchester. By policing the speech of Left Unity members, to ensure that nobody is ‘bullied’ or ‘harassed’, such elements set up as a precondition for participation the assimilation of a particular form of rarefied language; in short, an inaccessible piece of bureaucratic intellectual property. It is hardly inconceivable that, in the prevailing atmosphere, should a copper-bottomed ‘ordinary person’ waft into a Manchester LU meeting next week, they will be immediately reported to the disputes committee for speaking in the plain manner that ‘ordinary people’ do.

It is, of course, unlikely. Just as the Weekly Worker - contrary to the wails of manufactured outrage from some quarters - does not persecute people for being naive, the Manchester comrades would probably indulge a new face rather more generously than our comrade Laurie. In excluding one of the main alternative viewpoints available in the branch, however, in the name of ‘inclusivity’, these comrades are in fact denying others a choice. Without the right to criticise, to heckle and to ridicule, everyone is subjected to the tyranny of whatever the prevailing ‘common sense’ is.

Thus, an SWP-style outcome imposes itself. Newer comrades are ‘protected’ from different ideas, and therefore are stunted in their development. Should they themselves arrive at conclusions opposed to the prevailing doxa, they will rapidly find themselves unwelcome, and many will leave; thus the organisation begins to select for diffidence and cronyism, rather than the qualities which enable individuals to become leaders.

This is not just a phenomenon endogenous to the workers’ movement or the left. Just look at the main bourgeois parties - how the Westminster cliques become ever more anonymous, and how Labour constituency organisations become empty shells of the thriving organisations they once were, and likewise local Conservative associations. In some cases, dissent is suppressed on pseudo-disciplinary grounds; on others, in the name of the need to remain united in the face of the evil Tories (or otherwise, red Ed Miliband). The result is the same - a toxic dynamic that eats organisations away from within.

It is for this reason that the action taken by Manchester branch is badly mistaken. The right to publicly criticise is not just an indulgence to the opinionated. It is a vital matter of political health. Without it, Left Unity will die.

It goes without saying, of course, that we will defy any further resolutions against reporting on ‘private affairs’, or adopting an overly ‘aggressive’ tone - not because we want to destroy LU, but because we want it to succeed.